Jewish Federation of the Bluegrass Press Release: On Tolerance, Hatred, and Respect (including response to Stephen Bannon appointment)

PRESS RELEASE

SUMMARY

The Jewish Federation of the Bluegrass (JFB) issues a call for tolerance, a rejection of hatred, and a respect for all. The JFB also asks that President-elect Trump reconsider his appointment of Stephen K. Bannon.

———

STATEMENT

THE JEWISH FEDERATION OF THE BLUEGRASS CALLS FOR TOLERANCE, A REJECTION OF HATRED, AND RESPECT FOR ALL

The Jewish Federation of the Bluegrass issues a call for tolerance, a rejection of hatred, and an embrace of diversity and pluralism.

In recent months, we have seen a spate of incidents of intolerance and prejudice in the U.S. and abroad. Numerous instances of bullying, vandalism, violence, ugly language, and name calling targeting ethnic, racial, and religious minorities have led to a climate that both adults and children find unsettling and even frightening.

The appointment of Stephen K. Bannon, especially, as President-elect Donald Trump’s “chief strategist and senior counsellor” has caused consternation among many Americans, and particularly in the Jewish community.

All presidents should have the right to make their own choices as to who advises them on strategic and other matters. We respect the latitude necessary for a president to work efficiently and productively on issues of national and ultimate global significance.

Yet, Mr. Bannon, through his position as chief executive of Breitbart News, has associated himself with a variety of radical views that fall into the categories of anti-Semitism, xenophobia, racism, Islamophobia, homophobia, and misogyny. For these reasons, white nationalists and neo-Nazis celebrate him as one of their own. No one with these associations should be in the White House, especially among our president’s closest advisors.

It is the responsibility of our Federation to support and defend the rights of the Jewish community and all minority communities against all forms of bigotry, racism, hatred, and persecution.  We understand that prejudice, including anti-Semitism, exists at both ends of the political spectrum. History has taught us that silence is both unacceptable and dangerous.

We urge President-elect Trump to demonstrate his commitment to the pluralism, diversity, and respect for all Americans he pledged in his victory speech when he promised to “bind the wounds of division” in America.

As a first step in this endeavor, we ask President-elect Trump to reconsider his appointment of Stephen K. Bannon. We also request that he reach out and show in all his personnel appointments his desire to work toward genuine healing in our divided society.

Our Federation, along with other federations, including the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, continues to stand for the values we have always upheld: welcoming the stranger, fighting injustice, repairing the world, supporting Israel and Jewish communities around the world, speaking up for the voiceless, and protecting the orphan and the widow.

Hate is neither a Jewish nor an American value. We urge local, state, and national leaders on both sides of the aisle to speak up against this threat to American democracy, to uphold inclusion, to fight against bigotry and discrimination of all kinds, and we encourage other community groups to join in our efforts to combat prejudice and abuse.

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Workshop: “Reading the Bible Mystically”

READING THE BIBLE MYSTICALLY: An Introductory Workshop
Dr. Laurence H. Kant, Historian of Religion (Ph.D., Yale University, 1993)
June 14, 2015, Sunday, 2:00-5:00 p.m.
Full Circle Massage School: 465 EAST HIGH STREET, Suite 110, Lexington, KY  40507 (Please note that the correct address 465 East High Street)

Everyone comes to the Bible with different perspectives. Lay people appeal to tradition, practice, belief, social justice, evangelism, literal interpretation, and opposition or apathy to religion. Scholars interpret the Bible from their own angles: history, literature, sources, language, theology, and archaeology. No one perspective, however, can encompass and explain biblical texts.

For me, a mystical approach to biblical interpretation entails the discovery and creation of profound meaning in the text. Integrative in nature, it uses a variety of perspectives to understand the contexts and multiple (often ambiguous and conflicting) meanings of passages. We start from the ground up, beginning with small details (word-by-word and even letter-by-letter) as we move through sentences and stories toward apparently hidden and esoteric readings. Usually what we regard as secret or mystical lies in open sight, but seeing it demands close attention and far-reaching awareness of all sorts.

We will initially have a brief review of some basic Hebrew Bible background, including chronology, history, the source hypothesis, and language issues. We will follow this up with a short discussion of how Jews, Christians, Muslims, as well as non-believers, non-affiliated, and spiritual-but-not-religious, view the Bible. Then we will spend the bulk of our time engaging the text, particularly Genesis 1, and discuss its use in constructing meaning for our lives. No previous background is necessary. Mutual respect is assumed in an atmosphere open to all spiritual, religious, and non-religious points of view.

The workshop is part of a larger series that continues in the Fall (September-October). Dates and times will be announced. There is a limit of 24 people for the June 14 session. If significantly more than 24 sign up, I will hold a repeat session at a later date.

The cost of the workshop is $35.00 per person (cash, or check made out to “Mystic Scholar, LLC”), Reserve a place by emailing Dr. Kant at dblk2@qx.net (with “Mystic Scholar” in the subject line). Payment may be made at the door before the workshop. Please read Genesis 1 beforehand. For further information on the presenter, see the attached CV and bio, as well as the brochure with photos.

Dr. Laurence H. Kant, Historian of Religion (Ph.D., Yale University, 1993)

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Israeli Governing Coalition Likely to Have 1-Vote Majority

Barring a unity government (which the Zionist Union under Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni have thus far resisted) or the sudden withdrawal of Bayit Yehudi (Naftali Bennett = the religious settlers’ party), there will be a coalition government of 61 MKs out of 120. This gives a 1-vote majority to the coalition and is a recipe for political instability and possible new elections. [MK = “Member of the Knesset]

Avigdor Lieberman and Yisrael Beteynu made this possible when they opted out of the government for a variety of reasons (see my post from a couple of days ago: See http://mysticscholar.org/lieberman-and-yisrael-beteinu-out-of-israel-government/

Essentially one member of the Knesset can bring down the government. One member can sit out a vote to prevent legislation from passing. One member can exact retribution on political rivals by voting one way unexpectedly or by abstaining. If someone wakes up in the morning on the wrong side of the bed, that MK can simply gum up the wheels of the government. One member can basically do anything he or she wants. It’s a level of political chaos, which even for Israelis is quite extraordinary. I have no idea how much can get done under these circumstances, unless a military crisis compels unity of some sort.

In Israel, they have nicknamed this potential government: “EVERY BASTARD IS A KING.”

For the moment, there will probably not be new elections, simply because the politicians and the voters are exhausted by the previous campaign. No one apparently wants to face an election right way. That will likely change in short order, however, once the political circus again enters into full season.

Israelis are famously tough and resilient in these kind of circumstances. They will have to use every bit of that ingenuity to keep this government afloat for an extended period of time.

Anybody out there have ideas about how all this is likely to play out?

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“Selma,” Film Criticism, History, and Racism

Radio show host Limbaugh speaks at a forum hosted by the Heritage Foundation in Washington

Here’s my take. Much of the criticism of “Selma” is accurate. However, why is there so much criticism of “Selma,” but not of other Hollywood historical films? it’s not the substance of the criticism which I find problematic, but the ferocity and amount of it.

From what I know, LBJ and King were partners in the civil rights process, but that relationship later fell apart over the Vietnam War. I’m sure that King was pushing harder for the Voting Rights Act than Johnson, but the dynamic was a lot more subtle than “Selma” shows. I also did not find Tom Wilkinson’s portrayal of Johnson at all convincing. It just didn’t ring right for me. Personally, I was particulary bothered by the absence of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who was replaced by a Greek Orthodox figure. This photo of King and Heschel from the Selma march is iconic, and one has to wonder what was the motive for air-brushing out a prominent Jewish activist. Does this say something about current Jewish-Christian and African-American-Jewish relations? Was this an attempt at Christianizing a more diverse event? Is this about Israel? Or is there something else going on, some kind of Hollywood soap opera? Anyway, I think it’s fair to say that many Jews were saddened by this.

That said, “Selma” was a powerful film with brilliant portrayals of Coretta Scott King and Martin Luther King. It shows a flawed hero and the importance of community activism. King did not come out of nowhere, but emerges out of a broad movement (which also includes women).

Where was the same criticism of “Lincoln,” which edited out the prominent role of Frederick Douglas? More recently, the “Imitation Game” played fast and loose with the story of Alan Turing. Turing was not as difficult and rude a person as Cumberbatch portrays (though I thought his portrayal was nevertheless also brilliant). The Turing machine was much smaller than the one depicted. There were others that worked on this project before Turing, particularly Polish mathematicians (never once mentioned). And the depiction of Commander Denniston as a hectoring, bureaucratic bully is not accurate either (thanks to Dianne Bazell for this info).

Ben Affleck’s “Argo” won an Oscar for best picture in 2013, and yet the entire film was essentially a fiction that had little to do with the historical event depicted with Iran and the Khomeini revolution. “Argo” makes “Selma,” “Lincoln,” and “imitation Game” look like milquetoast documentaries (which I realize is unfair to documentaries–a genre that I love). Looking at “Argo” is no better than watching “Quo Vadis” in order to understand the historical Roman world and early Christianity. I noted this in an essay on my blog in 2013, and there were others who did so as well, but the bigger-click oped writers carried the day: and they loved “Argo.” There was very little prominent or strong criticism of “Argo.”

Why do “Argo” and others get of the hook, while “Selma” receives such deep historical analysis? Why didn’t David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo receive Oscar nominations for Best Actor and Best Actress?

I think the answer is clear. There is an element of prejudice and racism in the focus on “Selma.” Critics (particularly white liberal critics) are much more defensive of “Selma,” because they feel a personal connection to the event which is not the case with most other films. And they feel hurt and slighted, because they feel lumped together with LBJ as resistant to civil rights progress.

I have never understood why drama and historical accuracy have to be opposed to be one another, but that is the way Hollywood screenwriters, directors, and producers seem to view the matter. That is the reality of these films. Critics, who know this full well, have to be consistent in their critiques. If you criticize historical inaccuracies, then you should do it consistently. Don’t lower the boom on one film, while letting the others slip through the cracks. If you do, be prepared for the return volleys that you will inevitably receive from the other side. This is rightfully so.

 

http://www.salon.com/2015/01/21/maureen_dowds_clueless_white_gaze_whats_really_behind_the_selma_backlash/

 

Addendum:I keep looking at the thumbnail photo accompanying, and I just can’t it out of my mind how Heschel is air-brushed out. I still find “Selma” a superb film, but this erasure saddens me deeply. So here’s the original photo:

SelmaKingHeschelPhoto1

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Charlie Hebdo and the Comic Tradition

CHARLIE HEBDO AND THE COMIC TRADITION

I’ve read and watched an awful lot of news analysis of Charlie Hebdo, but rarely do pundits mention some of the salient facts about what Charlie Hebdo actually does and about the tradition of satire:

1) Charlie Hebdo mocks all three Abrahamic religions, not just Islam, and it does so offensively with no special favorites, but Jews and Christians do not attack and demonize Charlie Hebdo;

2) The tradition of satire and caricatures or religion in France is very old going, back to at least the French Revolution, and is tied to the deep distrust of religious institutions (the Catholic Church primarily) that was closely linked to the royal dictatorship that crushed economic, social, and political freedoms in France;

3) Charlie Hebdo does not only mock religion; it mocks other institutions and prominent public figures;

4) Charlie Hebdo is a part of a tradition of offensive satire that goes back to ancient Greek comedy. It includes writers such as Aristophanes whom many profess to love (mainly because they don’t understand, or care about, the ancient references). However, if Aristophanes were alive today, he would probably engender hatred among the people he would gleefully pillory and mock.

5) Commentators are shocked by all the sexual references in Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons. However, ancient comedy (and drama), which is the literary predecessor of Charlie Hebdo, was associated with phallus processions, accompanied by obscenities and verbal abuse.

So what some consider juvenile, stupid, and offensive in Charlie Hebdo has roots in literature and dramatic traditions that we profess to admire and call “classic.” We in the U.S. live in a culture that is still relatively Puritanical in its approach to public sexuality, and that is coming out in the U.S. media coverage.

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Mizrahi Nation: Middle Eastern Jews in Israel and a Brief History of Jews in the Middle East

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A superb article by Matti Friedman, one of the best of I have seen not only on the history of the Mizrahi (Middle Eastern Jews) in Israel, but on what it means to be Israeli, Jewish, and living in the Middle East. This article offers a perspective that is rarely found in discussions about Israel and the Israel/Palestinian conflict. After reading it, you may find your views on Israel, Jews, and the Middle East at least a little different.

I particularly enjoyed his characterization of the “religious vs. secular” Jewish dichotomy as a Western/Ashkenazi labeling. For Mizrachi, that distinction doesn’t exist. They have their own “liberal” form of Judaism which is not Orthodox, but “traditional”/Masorti–the name for Conservative Judaism, but different, because it has its own history and application that is completely different from the European-based movement. For example, some Mizrachi may go to Synagogue in the morning, head to the beach in the afternoon, text to one another, while celebrating Havdalah (end of Shabbat) later.

Overall the Mizrachi are much more “liberal” in practice than the Ashkenazi (European-based) religious, but more politically conservative than many Ashkenazi. Their conservatism is not based on ideology (as is typical of Ashkenazi on all sides of the political spectrum), however, but more on experience in having lived in the Middle East for many centuries (well before Islam ever got there).

http://mosaicmagazine.com/essay/2014/06/mizrahi-nation/

 

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Media Bias and Israel

FriedmanMatti

More on the bias of Western media coverage of Israel by a former AP reporter, Matti Friedman: hostile fixation on Jews and Israel; censorship of Gaza coverage under pressure from Hamas and failure to report Hamas using civilians as human shields; and failure to report on an Israeli peace proposal. The original story discussed the failure of Western media to report on the corruption of the Palestinian Authority; the all-consuming media criticism of Israeli society and politics, with virtually no criticism of Palestinian society and politics; intense documenting of Israeli violence against Palestinians, with no corresponding, remotely equivalent documenting of Hamas’ brutality and vast military infrastructure; failure to report on Hamas intimidation of reporters; failure to describe the Hamas charter, which call for the genocide of Jews and uses the notorious Jew-hating Protocols of Zion to call for the murder of Jews; failure to report on Israeli peace proposals prior to the Netanyahu government; failure to report on the tiny size (both geographically and demographically) of Israel in contrast to the Arab/Muslim world; failure to connect Hamas to other extreme, exclusivist, violent Muslim religious movements (e.g. al Qaeda, ISIS, Hezbollah, Taliban); and the overall equivalence of Israel as bad oppressors and Palestinians as sympathetic victims.

I am a strong critic of many Israeli policies (settlements, racism against Arabs, too much religion in government, the Netanyahu’s goverment failure to engage the Palestinian Authority), but it’s appalling how media coverage is so one-sided and tilted against Israel (and Jews as well) and so relatively non-critical of Hamas (which advocates genocide of Jews, believes in forced conversion to Islam, supports brutality and violence, and opposes democratic and secular values) and the Palestinian Authority (which is notoriously corrupt, inept, suspicious of democratic values, and refuses to accept Israel as Jewish): http://tabletmag.com/scroll/184707/ongoing-controversy-around-the-most-important-story-on-earth

Here’s the original article by Friedman: http://tabletmag.com/jewish-news-and-politics/183033/israel-insider-guide?all=1

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Gaza, Israel, and Media Coverage

Why are the global protests all focused on Gaza? Many more are dying in Syria: 700 over a two-day period.

Israel is the bogeyman for world media, but no one gives a hoot if Arabs are slaughtering other Arabs. What does this say about Israel and about antisemitism (yesterday protesters looted and ransacked Jewish businesses in a Paris suburb)?

Part 1: RESPONSE TO A COLLEAGUE ARGING THAT MEDIA COVERAGE OF GAZA IS SO EXTENSIVE BECAUSE OF ISRAEL’S FAILURE TO AGREE TO A CEASEFIRE

I don’t agree with you that the ceasefire issue is what drives the media.

The reason everyone pays attention to Gaza, and not to Syria, is because no one in the West gives a darn about Arabs and Muslims dying, but they do enjoy scapegoating Jews wherever they are. Whatever problems there are in the Middle East, blame it on the Jews. Now Muslims and Arabs have joined in on this. Take a look at Paris and its suburbs, where protesters have now burned and decimated French Jewish businesses. This is not primarily because of Gaza, but because fundamentally, at root, people blame Jews for whatever problems exists in their communities and cultures.

It’s sad, but it’s a fact. I don’t see a lot of people in Europe attacking Russian churches and community centers, because Russian separatists shot down a passenger jet. Where are the protesters on Iran’s treatment of the Bahai? Israelis are trying to protect their civilian population. You can argue about their tactics and effectiveness, but they do have a good argument based on self-defense.

No, fundamentally, the media and most people are fixated on Jews. This is a 2500-year-old problem, deeply rooted in history and culture. Those of us who devote our lives to working on antisemitism, Jewish-Christian-Muslim relations, must face this on a daily basis. That’s the reality, and no amount of rationalizations get around this fact.

PART 2: RESPONSE TO A COLLEAGUE ARGUING THAT EXTENSIVE MEDIA COVERAGE OF GAZA IS DUE TO LIMITED FINANCIAL RESOURCES

a) It’s not just Syria that the media ignores. Last I heard France is pretty good digs for reporters. Yet how much media attention is focused on protesters burning down Jewish shops and businesses, calling Jews “pigs” and shouting “kill the Jews,” vandalizing and storming synagogues, and hunting Jews on the streets? There were similar (though less destructive) events in Germany. I don’t see much on the TV about that. Iran is a police state, but it’s relatively safe to travel in. Where is the attention on the Iranian treatment of the Bahai, who are viciously persecuted and murdered? What about the Iranian treatment of their native Arab population and political dissidents, whom they like to hang from cranes? Where is the attention on the destruction of indigenous communities worldwide (including in the US and Canada) for corporate profit (oil, minerals, gems, whatever)? What about China and Tibet? What about the treatment of women and gays in the Arab/Muslim world? How much media attention is there on that compared to Israel? I could go on and on. The fact of the matter is, the media, and people in general, are obsessed with Jews. Israel is a good proxy for that.

There is one financial factor you did not mention: Israel coverage markets well to a public that is focused on Jews and Judaism. In other words, “Israel” sells. As the newspaper people used to say, “Israel” makes good copy.

That said, I do agree that the safety and cheapness of travel to Israel is a factor in media coverage of Israel. Part of the attraction is also that Israel is a pleasant place to which to travel and a democracy with a free press. There’s just a lot more to it than your explanation.

b) Israel is in the news all the time. The media always has stories about the Palestinian situation–not as intensely as Gaza right now, but these stories are all over the place regularly. They’re hard to miss. I don’t see nearly as much attention on the stuff I describe above as I do on Israel, even when Israel is not involved in a war.

Beyond that, there has been massive violence (with concentrated deaths in short periods of time) in other locations over the past decades with relatively little media attention: Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Congo, Ivory Coast. Back in the 1960s through the 1990s we saw hideous numbers of deaths in conflicts in South America, Africa, and East Asia (remember East Timor) without comparable attention. Naturally disasters such as occur in Bangladesh and India attract relatively little attention. These are not all impossible to cover (not as easy as Israel, but not Syria), and yet we saw very little on them. I would not expect the equivalence of Gaza, but I would have expected a lot more than we got.

Somehow the media figured out a way to cover our wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait, and Vietnam. The media covered the breakup of Yugoslavia, including Bosnia/Serbia. They covered the Tiannamen Square uprising in China. They gave blanket coverage to the Indonesian tsunami. They focused on the 2009/10 election protests in Iran. In the U.S. the media covered the Tea Party, but much less the Occupy movement.

If it wanted to do so, the media could cover Syria to a greater extent than it has recently. Yes, it’s not easy, and, yes, it’s more expensive. Coverage of Syria would never equal coverage of Gaza, but the media could give Syria much more attention than it has–even without a lot of reporters on the ground. It chooses not to, because Syria, Arabs, and Muslims just don’t hold the attention of the public or of news decision-makers. They’re just not sexy or meaningful to enough people.

I’m not saying that it’s unreasonable to give Gaza a lot of attention. And I’m not saying that a Jewish fixation is the only reason the media focuses on Israel/Gaza/West Bank. I am saying that Gaza has attracted much more attention than other stories of similar magnitude and that part of it has to do with the public’s fascination (for both good and ill) with Israel and Jews. I’m also saying that the media picks and chooses what it decides to cover, in part based on what it thinks sells best. And Israel sells real well. And it has since 1948, especially since 1967.

And I can tell you this. Unless a miracle happens soon, stories about Israel’s conflicts with its neighbors will continue to abound (massive deaths or not), while stories about Ukraine and Russia will have long since faded into oblivion. This does have to do with the prominent place of Jews (in spite of their small numbers) and Israel in human culture and history.

c) All in all I just don’t buy this argument. It does not pass the smell test. The amount of coverage on Israel/Palestine (the former British Mandate), a tiny piece of land with a miniscule population of Jews and Arabs is massive and overwhelming, even without the current Gaza conflict. The overwhelming coverage cannot be explained away simply by reference to limited media resources. An alien from another solar system who dropped onto earth and saw the media coverage would assume that Israel/Palestine must comprise a large continent and a major portion of the world’s population. Obviously, that’s not the case. There are other reasons why the public and the media are obsessed with this little slice of our planet. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that out.

d) I do think antisemitism is a major factor, but not the only one. It’s fixation on Jews that’s really at the core here. Even some supporters of Israel are motivated in part by the Bible and by their belief in Jews as part of God’s plan. And there are philosemitic non-Jews who focus on Jews and on Israel for a whole host of reasons. I wouldn’t call that antisemitism, but it does reflect a somewhat unhealthy obsession with Jews and Judaism. So fixation on Judaism is not simply antisemitism, but can actually be philosemitism as well. I would certainly rather have the latter than the former, but even that is a sword cutting more than one way.

I think it would be best for Jews if others would simply live their lives and leave us be. At the same time, I admit that Jews sometimes cultivate this fixation, and I’m certainly uncomfortable with that. There should be dialogue and conversation–not as an attempt to convert or to preach, but in order to learn and grow. I think it’s much better for Christians to become better Christians than to become Jews or something else, and I think it’s much better for Jews to become better Jews than to spend our time distinguishing ourselves from Christians and others.

As for one-sidedness, that’s a red herring. There are lot of one-sided conflicts in the world (some of which I already mentioned above) that do not get the same attention as Israel/Palestine. In Tibet, it’s mostly Tibetans getting killed, not Chinese. In Iran, no government officials get killed, only dissidents and disfavored minorities. In Central America, governments killed rebels and dissidents far more than the latter killed the former. In France, supporters of Israel are not attacking pro-Palestinian demonstrators, while Palestinians supporters are engaging in numerous attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions. Right now in Syria, ISIS seems to be inflicting most of the damage.

Actually, the death toll in Gaza is now over 700 Gazans and 32 Israeli soldiers, plus two civilians. Of course, that’s because Israelis try to protect their civilians, while the goal of Hamas is to have as many civilians as possible killed in order to promote their PR/media campaign. It’s amazing (though sadly not surprising) to me that the media mentions this only in passing or skeptically. Also, we have no way of knowing how many Gazan civilians vs. soldiers are being killed–Hamas is not exactly a trustworthy source for this kind of info.

In any case, the media would do well to spend more time looking more deeply at what’s going on and not simply reporting death numbers as if it’s a football game. From that perspective, however, Hamas is winning. For them the side with the most dead is the victor. So on the media scoreboard, Hamas is currently ahead of Israel, c. 1,058 vs. 53. That’s a lopsided victory for Hamas. I’m sure Hamas’ leaders are thrilled. The culture of death is winning in a landslide over the culture of life.

Perhaps, however, the distancing of other countries from Hamas that I have observed recently is a move in the right direction. That would certainly show some sophistication in not simply accepting Hamas’ explanations at face value. I hope the media will move in that direction as well.

 

PART 3: ON ISRAELI AND ARAB POSITIONS ON A PALESTINE STATE (INCLUDING THOMAS FRIEDMAN WHO WANTS ISRAEL TO FOCUS ON DEVELOPING THE WEST BANK AS A THRIVING DEMOCRACY)

I’m not a fan of Netanyahu and have never supported him or Likud. I’m not sure he’s as opposed to a Palestinian state as you think, but I’m not sure he believes in much of anything–except his own political survival. And I wrote on this blog that most Arab governments don’t want a Palestinian state either: see the same thing here-http://mysticscholar.org/whats-really-going-on-in-the…/

As far as the West Bank goes, Friedman is right in principle, but that’s no easy task either. Fatah is corrupt, inept, and non-democratic, and there is not much of a prospect for more salutary groups or institutions that could take the lead. The West Bank would need a massive shift in culture and outlook for what Friedman suggests to happen. And Arab governments, as well as Iran, have no interest in an autonomous, free, democratic Palestine. They will do everything possible to prevent that from happening. So that leaves essentially a mess for Israel to deal with. Netanyahu is not much of a leader, but I doubt that anyone or any Israeli party could deal with the current state of things. 

So what are the options? What should Israel do in light of all this? I have no idea. Neither does anyone else as far as I can make out. The best I can think of is play a waiting game and hope that the West Bank cleans up its act and that the Arab world develops some kind of democratic institutions (Tunisia??).

As far as handling Hamas, I don’t know what Israel should do. I’m not an Israeli, and I don’t live there. But I know I wouldn’t put up with rockets firing on my land and tunnels with terrorists pouring out. Perhaps there’s a better way to deal with Hamas, but I don’t know what it is, and I haven’t heard anything plausible. Demilitarizing Gaza would make sense, but that seems impossible, given Hamas and given the sentiments of Gazans. 

If you have something practical to suggest, I really would listen–really. But most of what I’ve heard out there is, quite frankly, naive, totally impractical, or simply wrong. I’m waiting–but sometimes, you just have to tread water for a while. 

Friedman can talk and talk, but his ideas are not really pragmatic or feasible; they just sound nice and thoughtful. He’s not really suggesting anything workable, just a lot of hopeful words.

In the meantime, I have to deal with the antisemitism that’s out there and that’s integrally related to the media’s depiction of Israel. France is a mess, and the attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions is reminiscent of Nazi-era events. And this is happening across Europe. The situation is ugly and screwed-up, and the media is making it worse by not explaining what’s going on.

It does bother me that Israel gets singled out for its deplorable conduct, while the other nations you mention get a pass. The BDS movement focuses on Israel, but shows no interest in advocating divestment in other countries with far worse human rights violations (in the Middle East, that would include Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia, among others). This too is ugly and antisemitic, and the media does not address it at all. When you’re dealing with the detritus of the Holocaust that still remains with us and the burgeoning global antisemitism, this is very disturbing indeed.

 

Part 4: ON ISRAEL LEAVING THE WEST BANK AND THE CREATION OF A PALESTINIAN STATE THERE

The problem is: if Israelis pull out and declare a Palestinian state (so called Plan B, which many Israelis are discussing, by the way, including Netanyahu), then you are left with a disfunctional Palestinian government/society and major security issues right on Israel’s border. The West Bank Palestinian economy is not good, and no amount of help from Israel can fix a broken system. Israel has limited resources with its own enormous economic issues: a large population of young who do not have much upward mobility (just as is the case globally), an excessively high cost of living, a minority of ultra-orthodox who profit from the current welfare system without putting much back into it, an electoral system that promotes fragmentation (giving excess weight to small parties), and a military budget that will not diminish just because Israel leaves the West Bank.

Therefore, if Israel leaves the West Bank on its own or with an agreement, it will be faced with a restive, frustrated Palestinian population in the West Bank, a corrupt government that is anti-democratic and probably unable to improve the economy much at all, and the potential for a neighbor that will continue its war and terrorism against Israel as a way of casting blame away from itself. And you cannot forget that the Fatah government would have limited ability to govern, given that Hamas has considerable influence in the West Bank and that there are numerous other splinter groups in the West Bank committed to the destruction of Israel. There is no guarantee that Hamas, a fanatic group committed to the destruction of Israel and Jews worldwide, would not take over there. As we learned in Iraq, a democracy/free society does not emerge just because you wish it to be so. A lot has to be in place before that can happen. If it doesn’t, Israel will be in an even more precarious position.

Further, Arab/Muslim governments for the most part do not want an independent, free, democratic Palestinian state for a simple reason: they would be forced to face their own populations and explain themselves. Their opposition would create further difficulties for both Israel and Palestine and make the situation potentially even more volatile..

I do not support the continued building of new settlement outposts, and I’m not going to defend that. I think it’s wrong. But I don’t know what the way out is. There are many critics of Israel (including Israelis), but I have not heard much about how to solve this pragmatically other than hopeful words and pleasant thoughts. If anyone out there has read something or heard something that is practical and specific, I would be thrilled to read or hear it.

As to the media, I stand by what I’ve said. Israel/Gaza/West Bank is a tiny strip of land with a miniscule population. Even when there’s no major conflict, the media focus is enormous and disproportionate. That’s because it sells globally: in the U.S., in Europe, and in the Muslim world. It’s because it’s the land of the Bible. And it’s because Jews are involved.

PART 5: RESPONSE TO A COLLEAGUE ARGUING THAT THE CONCEPT OF THE “CHOSEN PEOPLE” AND OF “DIFFERENCE ARE WHAT DRIVE SOME OF THE ANIMOSITY TOWARD ISRAELIS AND JEWS

On the whole “chosen people” business, I rarely hear Jews, including most Israelis, talk about this. Most of the Israeli settlers are looking for suburban plots near Jerusalem and have no interest in theology. There are extreme settlers who talk about the Chosen People (Hebron, for example–and quite a number of them are American immigrants), but they are a small minority, and most Israelis (even religious ones) strongly dislike them.

It’s mostly Christians who talk about Jews as the Chosen People. I’ve led a lot of Jewish study groups, and that topic hardly ever comes us, except in response to Christians. Conservative/Evangelical Christians love the whole “Chosen People” trope and run with it non-stop. They have their own agenda, with end-time theology and mass conversion. Mainline and liberal Christians hate the whole idea of it and complain incessantly about Jewish superiority and tribalism.

Jewish sources talk about the Chosen People, but mostly not with pride. In Jewish tradition, God asked every other people to be the chosen ones, and they all refused. The Jews were the last, and they finally agreed to it–with a lot of complaints that have continued through the centuries. The concept of being “chosen” is not necessarily positive at all, but a burden that Jews are stuck with, forcing them to live difficult lives without much reward.

Even so, most Jews today don’t talk about it much, because it’s not an important part of daily life, of identity, or of practice. It’s mainly Christians (and now Muslims) who obsess over it.

Now, on the concept of “difference,” that’s a different matter. Lots of individuals and groups think of themselves as different. And, in fact, they are.

Teilhard de Chardin (who was a Catholic evolutionary biologist and theologian) had a concept known as the Omega Point, which he believed was the ultimate level of collective consciousness that human beings could attain in the distant future. He thought that collective consciousness depended not on homogeneity, but on hyper-individuality–each person’s authentic uniqueness.

We’re all different, and, yes, we’re all similar too, but Jews focus more on the “difference” part. They’re not the only group to do that. I don’t think that everyone should have to be the same. There should be a place (I hope) on the planet and in the human species for individuals and groups who focus more on difference.

 

ON THE DIFFICULTIES OF A TWO-STATE SOLUTION

The problem is: if Israelis pull out and declare a Palestinian state (so called Plan B, which many Israelis are discussing, by the way, including Netanyahu), then you are left with a disfunctional Palestinian government/society and major security issues right on Israel’s border. The West Bank Palestinian economy is not good, and no amount of help from Israel can fix a broken system. Israel has limited resources with its own enormous economic issues: a large population of young who do not have much upward mobility (just as is the case globally), an excessively high cost of living, a minority of ultra-orthodox who profit from the current welfare system without putting much back into it, an electoral system that promotes fragmentation (giving excess weight to small parties), and a military budget that will not diminish just because Israel leaves the West Bank.

Therefore, if Israel leaves the West Bank on its own or with an agreement, it will be faced with a restive, frustrated Palestinian population in the West Bank, a corrupt government that is anti-democratic and probably unable to improve the economy much at all, and the potential for a neighbor that will continue its war and terrorism against Israel as a way of casting blame away from itself. And you cannot forget that the Fatah government would have limited ability to govern, given that Hamas has considerable influence in the West Bank and that there are numerous other splinter groups in the West Bank committed to the destruction of Israel. There is no guarantee that Hamas, a fanatic group committed to the destruction of Israel and Jews worldwide, would not take over there. As we learned in Iraq, a democracy/free society does not emerge just because you wish it to be so. A lot has to be in place before that can happen. If it doesn’t, Israel will be in an even more precarious position.

Further, Arab/Muslim governments for the most part do not want an independent, free, democratic Palestinian state for a simple reason: they would be forced to face their own populations and explain themselves. Their opposition would create further difficulties for both Israel and Palestine and make the situation potentially even more volatile..

I do not support the continued building of new settlement outposts, and I’m not going to defend that. I think it’s wrong. But I don’t know what the way out is. There are many critics of Israel (including Israelis), but I have not heard much about how to solve this pragmatically other than hopeful words and pleasant thoughts. If anyone out there has read something or heard something that is practical and specific, I would be thrilled to read or hear it.

As to the media, I stand by what I’ve said. Israel/Gaza/West Bank is a tiny strip of land with a miniscule population. Even when there’s no major conflict, the media focus is enormous and disproportionate. That’s because it sells globally: in the U.S., in Europe, and in the Muslim world. It’s because it’s the land of the Bible. And it’s because Jews are involved.

 

ON PROSPECTS FOR A TWO-STATE SOLUTION

Actually, believe it or not, I think there will be peace some day. So I’m not pessimistic in the long term. I may be wrong, but, in my view, the Arab/Muslim world will have to move toward a more democratic system of governance before a two-state solution works. That’s going to take time. In spite of its shortcomings, the “Arab Spring” (which is not Spring in some places I realize) was a positive step. Tunisia will be interesting to watch.

Dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians will also help over time. This will not transform the region over night, but it is slowly affecting the situation and will continue to do so..

As for your idea, Ehud Barak offered something similar in 1999. Arafat and the PLO rejected it. It may not have been the right time, and Barak was a terrible negotiator.

Israel did not “seize” Gaza and the West Bank. Israel entered them in 1967 after facing a massive Arab attack. When the Arab world decides to accept a Jewish state in the Middle East (which governments are beginning to), then it will be easier to deal with the logistics of this problem.

On the Arab right of return, this is obviously a thorny issue and will involve compensation. The Palestinians are the only group in the world given “refugee” status after multiple generations of absence from a territory. When the Arab countries expelled Jews after 1948, Israel accepted them as full citizens of the state of Israel. On the other hand, Arab governments forced Palestinians to live in refugee camps and did not integrate them into Arab societies.

Israel will have to deal with this issue financially, but it’s not as one-sided as your words imply. There are two stories here, each having legitimacy: two peoples with two painful histories and competing narratives and claims to the land.

As for Hamas, I’m glad you’re confident in Gaza tossing them out under the right conditions. I’m not. And I don’t think Israelis can assume anything. All I have to do is look at other parts of the Middle East to draw another conclusion.

Nevertheless, at some point, the day will come when a two-state solution can be put into action. I just don’t think that day has arrived yet. Let’s hope it comes soon.

RESPONSE TO A COLLEAGUE WHO ARGUES THAT ISRAEL IS NOT A DEMOCRACY, COMPARING IT TO ALABAMA 100 YEARS AGO

KantGazaExchange1

On the Barak proposal and the Camp David Summit, most observers (including many Palestinians ones) lay the blame on Arafat–that he never offered a concrete counter-proposal and could not give up on the right of return. In the end, Arafat could not accept a Jewish state on land that he still considered as belonging to the Palestinians. In other words, he was not ready to make a deal–Barak was (even with his weaknesses as a negotiator).

As for democracy, Israel is not a perfect society, and there’s racism and prejudice there, along with at times poor treatment of its Arab population. And, yes, it is a Jewish state, with Jewish governing principles and a Jewish majority.

That said, Arab citizens in Israel have more freedom and rights than they do in almost any Arab/ Muslim society that I can think of. The rights of Arab Israeli women are far higher than in any Arab society. Arab Israelis also have a considerable higher standard of living than in the surrounding societies and can actually be openly gay without being murdered.

In 2011, the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion commissioned a poll of Arab residents of Jerusalem. A plurality indicated that, if given the choice, they would choose to live under Israel rather than the PLO and that they thought their neighbors would prefer Israeli citizenship to Palestinian citizenship. Most Israeli Arabs vehemently oppose an Israel-Palestine settlement, because they do not wish to live under the PLO. Senior PLO and Hamas leaders (including three sisters of Ishmail Haniyeh, the top leader of Hamas) have sought Israeli ID cards so that they can live in Israel if they choose. Many of them have done so, including Haniyeh’s sisters. (Haniyeh’s sisters currently live as Israeli citizens in the Bedouin town of Tel as-Sabi near Beesheva on the edge of the Negev in Southern Israel; several of their children have served in the Israeli Defense Force/IDF!). I don’t know what the polls are saying now and who is living where and who holds which ID cards, but not all Palestinians and Israeli Arabs view Israel as a authoritarian state (as you suggest). Further, their view of the Israeli government versus the PLO and Hamas is filled with complexity, nuance, and contradictions.

If we consider Germany a democracy or Italy or France or Japan or South Korea (countries that presume ethnic/linguistic/cultural majorities), then Israel is no less a democracy than any of those. Israel believes it has a right to preserve its Jewish character, that Jews need to have a place where they can live without fear of persecution, discrimination, and murder. I don’t think that’s unreasonable or contrary to democratic principles. Perhaps others have a new definition of democracy with which I am unfamiliar.

Would you really compare Israel to Alabama a 100 years ago– lynchings; micegenation laws; separate water fountains, bathrooms, park benches; not to mention effective voting prohibition? Are you sure that you thought this analogy through? I don’t think there are many objective observers who would consider your comparison legitimate or reasonable. You might want to try a new tack.

 

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Is Belief a Jewish Notion?

A good discussion: Howard Wettstein argues that the question of belief is not important in Judaism. The question as to whether or not God exists is the wrong question. Rather the questions should be:  What is your experience of God? How do you relate to God? Judaism is experiential and practical, not theological: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/03/30/is-belief-a-jewish-notion/?

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PC-USA/Presbyterians Assault on Zionism and Judaism

The Presbyterian Church/PCUSA has recently promoted as a congregational resource a booklet called “Zionism Unsettled.” This has caused an enormous amount of controversy in the Jewish community (from the left to the right), as it essentially denies the legitimacy of Jewish aspirations and questions the right of Jews to have their own state.The attack on Zionism is not a critique of particular Israeli policies, but rather an assault on Israel as a Jewish state and an attack on Jewish history. It is nothing less than open and unapologetic antisemitism. Among other things, it claims that European Zionism ruined the lives of Middle Eastern Jews and that blame for the suffering of those Jews (the Mizrahi) should fall on European Jews who are colonialist usurpers. According to this narrative, European Jews have duped poor, benighted Middle Eastern Jews who were living blissful lives until those nasty Euro-Jews came along. This is a lie, pure and simple. Middle Eastern Judaism has a long history of love for Israel and hope for a return to their homeland, as do all Jews everywhere on the globe. And Jewish history in the Middle East is complex and often harsh. For example, in Yemen, Jews faced vicious persecution and lived lives of abject poverty and constant harassment and intimidation. They were not even allowed to own musical instruments, and the men were relegated to working in sewers. And, although there were times when Jewish life flourished in the Middle East, Jews throughout the Middle East also faced regular pogroms and persecution for centuries.

Many Presbyterians (if not most at the local levels) do not support this antisemitic position, but a small group of advocates and ideologues have hijacked their church. I wish the challengers all blessings and offer my support in whatever way I can be of use.

For these reasons, I am giving you links to a series of articles that Middle Eastern Jews have themselves written on this topic. I hope you find them of interest.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lyn-julius/presbyterians-have-it-bac_b_4896724.html

http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/open-letter-to-the-presbyterian-church-from-an-iraqi-jew/

http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/presbyterian-churchs-guide-is-dead-wrong-about-iranian-jewry/

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Israeli Election: Western Media Doesn’t Get It

Most U.S. newspapers, like the New York Times article below, have never really gotten it and still don’t get it. This is NOT only about Netanyahu. And it’s NOT just “kitchen-table” issues, a patronizing phrase that smacks of elitism and intellectual snobbery.

This is about studio apartments that cost $500,000 dollars. This is about the Ultra-Orthodox who don’t serve in the IDF and the rest of the population that does. This is about welfare for corporations and for the ultra-Orthodox who live off the hard work of the middle class. This is about a government fixated on Iran while ignoring the economic plight of its own citizens. This is about unemployment and youth who have limited prospects. This is about religious bullying and extremism. This is about a minority of settlers who put at risk the majority of Israelis just trying to live their lives. This is about the vast majority of Israelis from left to right who believe that Palestinians have no interest in peace, but who still place hope above despair.

Israelis do care about serious issues. The issues above are serious. Just because Israelis are not only focused on borders and negotiations, as we are when it comes to the Middle East, does not mean that they are superficial or materialistic consumers. Israelis have a right to live their lives without others imposing their social, political, and religious preconceptions on them.

We in North America and Europe love to babble on (including me) about the prospects for peace, about the children of Abraham, about Jewish-Christian-Muslim relations, about the Bible, about oil, about democracy in the Middle East, and so much more. However, Israelis want to be able to have normal, healthy, fulfilling lives. This elections says to the Israeli government: you have to pay attention to the middle class and stop focusing on everyone and everything else but us. Without a middle class and without working people, there is no Israel. Peace starts at home.

Tepid Vote for Netanyahu in Israel Is Seen as Rebuke

By JODI RUDOREN – New York Times Online 1-23-13

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel is likely to serve a third term, but voters gave a surprising second place to a centrist party founded by a celebrity who emphasized kitchen-table issues.

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Political Leadership: Misconceptions and Myths

Many environmentalists have criticized President Obama for not leading on climate change. I have defended him on this (see http://mysticscholar.org/climate/), arguing that environmentalists need to produce a movement that is politically effective. This is a question of what political leadership is: 1) having the courage to take positions that your constituents do not support in order to produce legislation that will have long-term positive affects; or 2) having the courage to wait until your constituents are close to supporting a position after you have guided them and persuaded them over time–then you can help them to get over the last impediments to produce the same legislation. It’s my view that #1 can produce short-term results, but cannot produce lasting political change, which only happens with #2.

Of course , there are times of crisis when #1 may be the way to go, in an emergency or a time of horror when waiting is morally and practically indefensible. However, helping people over the last hill that they need to get over is generally what political leadership in a democratic society is. I can’t think of many examples where political leaders in the U.S. have successfully advocated for a policy well beyond where people are ready to go. I include Washington, Lincoln, and Roosevelt in this. Each one of them took positions as they made sense both from both a moral and political point of view.

For example, it took Lincoln a long time to push for emancipation of slaves; he did not do so until he thought he could so successfully. Now you can criticize him for not doing this sooner given the horror and evil of slavery, but he successfully pulled it off where many others might not have. In the case of Roosevelt, many have criticized him for not intervening sooner in the Holocaust (e.g. not entering the war sooner or not bombing Auschwitz), but the U.S. eventually won the war and defeated Hitler, ending his reign of evil. That was not always a given–it wasn’t even a given that the U.S. would enter the war. It’s easy to criticize Roosevelt in hindsight, but the result was the end of the Nazis. Arm-chair theorists can hypothesize all they want, but political leadership involves difficult decisions that may seem cowardly, yet are in fact acts of courage given the time and situation.

Now, at the same time, it’s the job of activist leaders like Bill McKibben to persuade people to support their positions so that political leaders can act. That what abolitionist leaders in the nineteenth century did. It was true for civil rights leaders such as MLK. It’s the same for women’s rights advocates in the early 1900’s and more recently and for gay rights activists now.

Leadership is different when applied in different contexts. A political leader does not have the same role as an activist leader. Of course, some politicians can AFFORD to act, because their constituents will support them anyway. That was true of abolitionists, and it’s true today of many northeastern and west-coast politicians on the environment. But it’s different for politicians the bulk of whose constituents oppose a particular position and will continue to oppose that politician no matter how artfully or powerfully they craft their oratory.

Of course, many politicians misjudge events either by not acting whey could do so effectively or by acting before people are ready. For example, FDR might have been able to push for healthcare reform, while Bill Clinton did not have the political climate to win on healthcare. Of course, I could be wrong about that too (Clinton’s failure may have set the stage for Obama’s success): in the end, these leadership calculations are an art, not a science.

If you want to push for change before people agree with you, you should be an activist leader (or a writer or scholar or artist), not a political one. That’s one reason why I personally was never interested in professional life in politics. I do not have the patience to operate in such an environment, but thank God there are people who do. Politics is all about patience and the waiting game. It’s only in retrospect that political movements look as if they come from nowhere. They almost never do.

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The Middle East and the Israeli Political Scene

THE MIDDLE EAST AND THE ISRAELI POLITICAL SCENE

Laurence H. Kant

Thomas Friedman is right on the mark in this recent New York Times article, “The Full Israeli Experience,” describing (on the one hand) the justifiable frustration Israelis have with left-wing Europeans who don’t understand what it’s like to live in the Middle East and (on the other hand) pointing out the depressing absence of significant political support for peace initiatives among Israeli parties and political leaders.

As Friedman explains, Israelis will not listen if you don’t demonstrate you have a clue as to what’s going on in the Middle East. In my view, most left-wing Europeans–and some left-wing Americans as well–haven’t got the foggiest idea. They just don’t. They live in la-la land without a meaningful sense of the history of the Middle East or of Jews (or of Arabs and Muslims for that matter). Further, their own self-confidence leads them to think that they are somehow exempt from the prejudice and antisemitism that so deeply inhabits their being. They are just too arrogant and self-righteous to see it.

I would add, however, that Israelis are themselves naive at times. They think the US religious right is on their side, and they’re wrong. As some have said, fundamentalist Christians may love Israel, but they don’t like Jews much. Or maybe they like Jews from the “Old Testament” (as they envision it), or if Jews look funny in black hats from another time. However, such Christians are not very comfortable with mainstream Jews (secular, Reform, Conservative, and some Modern Orthodox, among others) who participate in global society, wear modern clothing, and constitute the vast majority of worldwide Jewry. Many millennarian Christians are not that different from the Palestinians in an odd sort of way. The PLO and Hamas are ok with the state of Israel as long as it’s inhabited by Arabs and Muslims. These evangelicals just replace “Arabs” and “Muslims” with “Christians” (after Jews convert, and Israel becomes a Christian state in the millennial age). Other evangelicals just want all Jews to convert to Christianity. Nobody, it seems, can envision Israel as Jewish, or can see Jews as staying Jewish, much longer. Apparently that concept is verboten.

The Middle East climate is rough right now, with the Arab/Muslim world in a whirlwind of tumult. In the midst of that, Israeli politics is more confused and chaotic than usual, an environment that is, to put it simply, a crazy mess (a mischigoss, balagan).

The main thing Bibi Netanyahu seems to care about is winning elections, while Avigdor Lieberman and his party, Yisrael Beteinu, is racist and authoritarian (though Lieberman is progressive on reducing the power of the religious). Lieberman and Netanyahu especially use the settlers (who constitute about 10% of the total Israeli vote) to drive their foreign policy and keep them in power, because in the fragmented Israeli system relatively modest numbers can drive your vote numbers high enough to win a lot of seats.  Moshe Kahlon threatened a breakaway party that would espouse a challenge to corporate interests in Israel, but he decided to stay with Likud and not run this year. Recently emerging further on the right is Habayit Yehudi (The Jewish Home),  a coalition of the National Relgious Party and the National Union, which are further to the right of Israel Beteinu, but represent a religious Zionist approach (in contrast to Likud/Israel Beteinu, which is secular). Led by Naphtali Bennett, this party is a settlers’ movement (closely associated with the West Bank settler’s council, Yesha) that envisions a greater Israel including the West Bank, opposes a two-state solution (in a wierd way, aligning with Hamas),  and takes away votes from Likud/Israel Beteinu.

The religious parties (who represent the ultra-Orthodox Haredi), besides bent on discriminating against women, primarily want welfare for themselves and military exemptions. They are not Zionist or genuine supporters of the Israeli political system. These include primarily Shas (representing the ultra-Orthodox Sephardim, led byEli Yishai) and United Torah Judaism (UTJ, representing the ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi). They rely on the weakness of the Israeli political system to essentially shakedown whatever government (right or left) is in power. Despite the portrayals of them in Western media, these groups have very little interest in, or influence over, the debate on Palestinian statehood or on West Bank settlements.

The center- and left-wings of Israeli politics are splintered and in tatters, filled with narcissists and limelight seekers (there are plenty of them on the right also, but there are more constraints on them at the moment). Friedman’s favorite centrist, Ehud Barak just sold his Tel-Aviv apartment for 26.5 million shekels or 6.5 million dollars–now there’s a real man of the people at a time when many Israelis cannot make ends meet. Beside his fondness for intrigue and drama, Barak also badly misjudged negotiating tactics in the Camp David discussions with the Palestinians in 2000.  Tzipi Livni has added former Labor Party leader, Amir Peretz, to her new party (Hatnua) list so that we have two leaders whom many Israelis perceive as having failed miserably during the 2006 Lebanese war. Most Israelis naturally don’t want them in leadership. Shaul Mofaz, the current leader of Kadima, is not a popular leader, lacking charisma and political skills. Some have floated the name of Shimon Peres. While he’s been quite a statesman and leader (the man partly responsible for Israel’s nuclear program), he’s not at the right age to reenter politics at 89, and, though popular now, he did not inspire confidence in Israelis when he was in power as a Labor Party politician. Ehud Olmert has serious legal problems and his own political baggage. Shelly Yacimovich, the Labor Party leader, who is growing in popularity, has virtually no foreign policy or security experience. Yair Lapid, head of the new party, Yesh Atid, advocates for a secular society and for women’s rights in explicit opposition to the religious, but his platform is probably too narrow to attract enough  votes to make him a significant player. The left-wing party, Meretz, describes itself as the peace party and as socialist, but most Israelis view it as too idealistic and unrealistic.

Overall, most Israelis don’t particularly like Netanyahu, but at least he’s competent in their view.

HBO or Showtime could easily serialize Israeli politics into a weekly evening soap opera, with wild twists and turns, intrigues, plots and counter-plots, jam-packed with drama-kings and drama-queens.

At the same time, one can trace the currently disturbed state of Israeli politics back to the 1995 assassination of Yitzhaq Rabin by a right-wing settler (Yigal Amir) who was himself goaded by the inflammatory rhetoric of settler leaders, politicians, and rabbis. Many Israelis (and diaspora Jews as well) are still stunned by the idea that a Jew would murder the Jewish leader of a Jewish state. Just as it took the US a long time to recover from the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, it may take Israel a long time to find its political way after this traumatic event. The incapacitating stroke of Ariel Sharon in 2006 just after he had successfully led Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza further exacerbated the political trauma and left Israel without another of its seminal leaders. Rabin and Sharon may not have seen eye to eye, but they were powerful leaders who had a vision for Israel and its place in the Middle East. They had obvious military credentials, were tough individuals with strong egos, and possessed a willingness to fight in the political underbrush. They also believed in seeking peace through strength, taking measures to demonstrate both their toughness and their openness to reconciliation. Their loss has had a deeply depressive effect on the Israeli body politic. We should not forget this.

Of course, the structure of the Israeli political system is flawed, allowing for the proliferation of smaller parties some of which wield power well beyond the numbers of their supporters. It makes coherence, consensus, and political stability more difficult to achieve than it should be. What we end up with is an already fragmented electorate even more fragmented.

Israelis are particularly bleak at the moment about the Arab world and about Palestinian society. All you have to do is take a look at the recent statement of Hamas leader, Khalid Meshal, about Israel: “Palestine is ours from the river to the sea and from the south to the north. There will be no concession on any inch of the land.” How do you have a rational discussion with a group that openly states that it wishes to annihilate you? Plus, Israelis have their own internal problems with an outrageous cost of living and enormous divisions between the secular and the religious.

Yet, in the final analysis, most Israelis want peace and will go a long way out of their comfort zone to make peace. Eventually the political culture will reflect that. Unfortunately, it may take more time. Given the situation in the Arab world and the lack of acceptance of a Jewish state, Israel’s neighbors are clearly in no mood to recognize a Jewish Israel. And, given Israel’s own divisions, Israelis find it difficult to harness a unified vision and national identity.

Things never move as quickly as we would like, but still they’re moving, however slowly. For example, attempts to bring Israeli Jews and Palestinians together are flourishing in all sorts of unlikely places in Israel and the West Bank. Within Israel we are seeing attempts from all sides of the political spectrum to lower the cost of living and help disadvantaged Israelis. And there are movements now to bridge the divide between the secular and religious in Israel.

Further, while the so-called Arab Spring could devolve into chaos or produce fanatic Muslim fundamentalist governments (see Iran, but this time potentially mostly Sunni rather than Shiite), it also presents the only real possibility for change in the Arab/Muslim world. The risks are enormous, but the previous corrupt, repressive governments of the Middle East (some of which still exist, with a few more barely holding on to power) would never have been able to bring about peace with Israel or democratic prosperity at home. Realistically, as dangerous and as anxiety-provoking as possible outcomes are, this change is the best hope Israel has for peace.

Part of the problem is that we can visualize peace, and that makes it seem closer than it actually is, but in reality peace is there on the horizon, just further out than we would like. Sometimes hope (as Pema Chodron says) holds us back and pushes us to do things which we should not. What we really need is neither hope nor despair, but an honest, clear-headed view of what’s in front of us, supported and nurtured by a fundamental trust in the universe (which is, after all, the Jewish way).

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/09/opinion/sunday/friedman-the-full-israeli-experience.html (Thanks to Nelson French! for this article)

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A New Day

A NEW DAY
© 2010, Dr. Laurence H. Kant
Essay for the Evolutionary Envisioning Circle of the Annual Great Mother Celebration, September, 2010

A new day emerges, as so many have in millennia past. Once, after we foraged and gathered, we became hunters. Once, after we hunted, we became farmers and shepherds. Once, after we lived in villages and small enclaves, we became city dwellers. Once, after priests and kings ruled, leaders came from the people. Once we did not know what was on the other side of the ocean; now we can not only travel there by boat or jet, but we can be virtually present on other continents when we’re secure at home half a world away. Once we thought that mass violence and genocide were normal; now we don’t. Once we did not even have a word for genocide; now we do.

Each time we move a few steps closer to the land of Eden, where, amidst friendship, dance, love-making, study, and work, we will dine again with God, the Source of All That Is. The sparks of fire that scattered at creation slowly come together to create a flame that lights our world in times of dissolution and chaos. We move from confusion toward knowledge, from fear toward courage, from despair toward hope, from separation toward unity, from pieces toward wholes.

What is wholeness? In Hebrew and Arabic, shalom/salaam connects to a Semitic root that means “whole” and “complete.” Some say “peace,” but that’s only part of the story. In its mystical sense, shalom/salaam really means interconnected oneness. It is that place where difference and oneness coexist, where each being finds its own unique purpose and self-expression as part of one planetary tableau, one eternal poem, one cosmic body, one collective consciousness, one Source.

During the shift, the ego (the I) recedes, and the authentic person emerges from its mother’s womb. The true self, the person You truly are, takes its place in the chariot palace, near the blazing wings of the multi-headed cherubim and the flashing heat of the serpentine seraphim. There it dines with other new-born true selves to seek wisdom in the new Temple of Knowledge and Love. Feminine and masculine energies, whose significance we assumed we understood, reveal unexpected meanings to thinking bodies and heart-filled minds. Days of pleasure and collective communing finally allow a slumbering species to shed its ego hide and put on a healing garment of shared awareness.

What will wholeness mean for evolving human culture? “Conformity” means a mass of individuals forming a collective mega ego (an I). Genuine “community” means a critical mass of individuals building a whole that transcends the individual egos and creates a collective Higher Self.

The events we see on our television sets and computer monitors—boiling, jittery delirium and tumult accompanied by earth’s eruptions, swirling storms, and disappearing ice—signal a shift from one age to the next. There will be many more such shifts in the future. But, for now, at this moment, our twenty-five-hundred-year sojourn at the inn of familiar habits, nations, and institutions has ended. Dying structures make way for new. Another day of travelling begins toward another inn on the road circling back and forward from and toward Eden. Here, in another time long, long ahead, we will be able to eat of both trees—of life and knowledge—but with experience enough to do so as humble partners of the Source, adult co-creators, sharing in the miraculous birthing of new worlds.

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Rev. Jim Wallis on Government Cuts

As a Jew, I thoroughly share the sentiments of Rev. Jim Wallis.  The TaNaKh and rabbinic tradition command us to take care of the poor and marginalized.  That why we are told not to plough the corners of our fields.  When the Hebrew Bible and the rabbis talk about caring for the needy, they refer to communities and governments.  The structures envisioned in those texts are governmental, and they *require* (not merely suggest) a society take the needy into account.  This tradition does not focus on voluntary acts and association, but on political structures that create a just society.  Those who try to convert these into free-market scenarios, which advocate economic commitments that are solely private, do not understand what the texts actually say.  Those who know the Hebrew and the history should start articulating the true nature of this tradition, which demands that governments protect those in need.

http://blog.sojo.net/2011/03/24/fast-pray-and-act-new-threats-to-the-poor/#disqus_thread

 

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Jewish Symbols: The Menorah

See my talk:   Laurence H. Kant, “Reassessing the Interpretation of Ancient Symbols,” Hellenistic Judaism Section Panel on Erwin Goodenough, American Academy of Religion/Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting, Anaheim, November, 1989: This piece deals with symbol interpretation and the early Jewish interpretation of symbols, particularly the menorah: © 1989, Laurence H. Kant, All rights reserved:   MenorahTalk1

This is a summary of my view of how a symbol conveys its meanings.

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Another Thought on Israel-Palestinian Peace Negotiations

Recently a New York times articles explained how close Israel and the Palestinian Authority were to completing a peace treaty under Israel’s Prime Minister Olmert.  Upon further reflection, I have some doubts.  It is in the interests of both Abbas and Olmert to exaggerate the proximity of a deal.  Olmert wants to contrast himself  with Netanyahu and present himself as great Israeli leader.  Abbas wants the West to think how great he is for giving up so much to the Israelis.

But the question is twofold:  Is Abbas ready to give up the right of return for millions of Palestinians (which is the only way for Israel to remain a Jewish state), to reject the demands of militant members of Fatah,  to accept Israeli authority over some Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, to acknowledge that Jews have some rights on the Temple Mount (which is also the location of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock), and to stop engaging in antisemitic rhetoric, particularly in its schools?  Is Israel ready to take a risk on a Palestinian Authority that has had a history of corruption and not following through on its commitments, to remove settlers who may well respond violently against the Israeli military, to remove its authority from sites and places that have a centuries-long Jewish presence, to surrender military and security advantages, and to allow East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital?

I am not sure that either side is prepared to act at this time.  The biggest challenge for both will be the militant, violent opponents of peace and reconciliation:  some Jewish settlers, as well as  militant members of Fatah and Islamist Hamas.  I don’t believe that either Israel or the PA has confidence in taking that risk without substantial support from the U.S.  And even with it, the Palestinians may need to continue their economic and political development to a point where Palestinian political leaders can face down militant ideologies and where Israel can have confidence and trust in taking a substantial risk– both internally with some potentially violent settlers and externally with a group that has historically hated Israel and wished to annihilate it.

Still everyone knows the outlines of a deal.  While the recent tectonic shifts in the Middle East could usher in a period of instability and tension, they also have a real possibility of producing authentic democratic, free societies, capable of dealing with a Jewish state.  This could therefore be a time out of which a meaningful agreement might emerge.  We shall see.

http://mysticscholar.org/2011/02/11/israel-palestinian-peace-treaty-so-close/

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Drones and Our Israel Op-Ed

Apparently drones bring forth a lot of emotion and strong opinion.   Here is my response to some of those who have questioned the drone example in the Lexington Herald-Leader op-ed.

Many drones are used for surveillance purposes, but drones are also used for attacks:  e.g. General Atomics MQ-1 Predators with Hellfire missiles (which have successfully killed a number of al-Qaeda and Taliban operatives, among others); and now the General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper.  I think that these weapons are just the beginning, and war will be fought increasingly virtually.  No question that this presents moral problems, but we cannot avoid questions by just saying “No.”  That’s not going to happen, nor should it.  In my view, drones save lives.  Strategic, tactical, and fighter bombers have a much greater likelihood of dropping their loads in the wrong places (in spite of major improvements in accuracy).  Ballistic missiles and artillery are not better.  Infantry operations can be even more dangerous for civilians.

The larger question is:  When military action is necessary, how do we have successful operations and minimize the killing of civilians?  The emotions that drones induce have more do with symbolism and PR than with actual facts on the ground.

I believe that drone technology is helpful overall, because it saves US and Coalition lives and because killing of civilians is less likely (even though it still tragically occurs). War has always been characterized by awful, hideous events.  Drones are not the reason they happen.  Nor do drones fuel insurgencies in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen.  Problems existed in those countries long before drones.  Americans seem to think that we have this great influence on the world and that we are the main drivers of events–it’s a kind of imperialism that exists on both the right and the left.  But people all over the world have their own motivations and reasons for doing what they do that have nothing to do with the US or with Israel.  There are independent actors, and we don’t pull everybody’s strings.

Drone technology is simply one concrete illustration of military cooperation and research.  However, one could also pint to other military items that the Israelis have developed (or helped to develop) that the US employs:  Python missiles, Gabriel missiles, SMAW anti-tank guided missiles, Simon breach grenades, Samson Remote Control Weapons Stations, etc.  Of course, Israel also uses US weapons:  F15s and F16s, transport planes, Apache attack helicopters, transport helicopters, howitzers, missiles (including Hellfire, Maverick, Sidewinder, and Stinger) and now the Arrow Missile Defense System, among others.  The US military clearly understands Israeli weapons research as a major strategic advantage for the US, and the Israelis naturally know the importance of US weapons for them.  The relationship is symbiotic and a part of our economy–even though I would love to see a time when the need for this is greatly reduced.

The question is not drones.  The question is military action in general.  I agree that not every time is a military option the best option.  In my view, both the US and Israel have sometimes forgotten this.  Still military elements are a crucial part of self-defense.  Without them, Israel would be annihilated and Jews slaughtered. In other locations, projecting military strength is required (even though the US might sometimes overplay its hand).  Having weapons is often more powerful than using them, but that is only the case when at least occasionally we do use them.

UPDATE:  On March 1, 2011, the IDF employed a new, defensive weapon, called the Trophy active protection system, designed to protect tanks from missiles.   This is a significant upgrade for tank and armored car protection.  During the Lebanon war, Israeli tanks suffered damage from hand-held, rocket-propelled grenades.  The Israelis designed this system, and it will undoubtedly become important for the U.S. military as well.  There is further similar technology in the pipeline as well.

http://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Editorials/Article.aspx?id=210540

See our op-ed: http://mysticscholar.org/2011/02/22/aid-to-israel-protects-us-interests/

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Aid to Israel Protects US Interests

AID TO ISRAEL PROTECTS US INTERESTS

Lexington Herald Leader Op-Ed

By Linda Ravvin, Laurence H. Kant and Mike Grossman

Posted: 12:00am on Feb 18, 2011; Modified: 7:45am on Feb 18, 2011

Sen. Rand Paul recently stated that not only does he advocate cutting off U.S. aid to Israel, but he sees that aid as fueling a Middle Eastern arms race.

As a proportion of the total budget, aid to Israel is negligible. The Israeli military has been purchasing American military hardware for many years, and an elimination of this money would cost the U.S. many manufacturing jobs.

Additionally, Israel has been at the forefront of developing military technology, and U.S. military aid funds joint projects that the American military has taken advantage of in Iraq and Afghanistan. This includes drone technology, which has saved countless American and coalition lives.

It is safe to say that Israeli technological achievements (which are at least partially funded by U.S. military aid) have helped keep American troops safer.

Israel is the only full-fledged democracy in the region. Tiny as it is, with only 7 million people, its presence serves as a model for the development of other democracies and free-market societies in the region.

Its own Arab population (including Muslims, Christians and Druze) has more freedom, legal rights, social mobility and economic opportunity than the vast majority of Arabs elsewhere in the Middle East. Many Arabs (Palestinians and others) seek to enter Israel because of the work opportunities afforded by its vibrant, high-tech economy.

Per capita, Israel has the highest level of technological entrepreneurship in the world, supported by a deep commitment to education. U.S. military aid to Israel allows Israel to continue its leadership in this (in spite of Israel’s own large military budget) and work as a partner with the U.S. in creating a global high tech economy. This means jobs for U.S. citizens as well.

Israel’s neighbors dwarf it in both population and geographical size. Many of these neighbors are sworn to Israel’s destruction. While Israel will never have a quantitative edge militarily, Israel does have a qualitative edge, and it is this edge (partially due to U.S. military aid) that has prevented its destruction.

If Israel were to lose that qualitative edge, its enemies would certainly become emboldened, and the likelihood of a new and destructive war in the Middle East would substantially increase. Given our continued dependence on oil and our other strategic interests, this would almost certainly mean a much heavier financial and military U.S. investment in the Middle East than currently exists.

U.S. military support for Israel actually increases the likelihood for peace. Israel’s qualitative military advantage makes it significantly more likely that it will take the risks necessary for a comprehensive peace agreement with the Palestinians (and the Syrians as well). Should Israel lose U.S. military support, it would certainly not be willing to withdraw from any militarily strategic positions it currently controls, negating the land-for-peace formula of United Nations resolutions.

The main backer of state terrorism and global jihad is Iran, and a decrease in Israel’s military advantage (which would certainly occur should aid be reduced) would cause Iran to further fund anti-Israel and anti-American militias throughout the region.

Israel has been on the front line of the global war on terror for many years. Unfortunately, it appears that Israel will be forced to fight this war for many years to come.

Given the burgeoning grass-roots movements for freedom and democracy in the Arab/Muslim world (especially in Tunisia and Egypt), U.S. involvement in the Middle East and commitment to Israel are more important than ever. When a region reaches a turning point that has profound implications for the world and for America’s own interests, the U.S. should not retreat, but stay engaged.

Nobody disputes that fiscal responsibility is a vitally important goal for our nation and that we will have to make painful budgetary sacrifices. Aid to Israel is in the interest of the U.S. from a financial, strategic and moral standpoint. We encourage Paul to reconsider his stance on this issue and to support fully funding our commitments to Israel.

Linda Ravvin is president of the Jewish Federation of the Bluegrass; Laurence H. Kant is chair and Mike Grossman is co-chair of the Jewish Community Relations Committee.

http://www.kentucky.com/2011/02/18/1640058/aid-to-israel-protects-us-interests.html#more

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Translations of Genesis

These are examples of my new translations of two small portions of Genesis: © 2007 Laurence H. Kant:  http://mysticscholar.org/talkspubs/translations-of-genesis/

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A Personal View of Kashrut (Kosher)

See Laurence H. Kant, A Personal View of Kashrut,” Opinion, Shalom, September, 2010, p. 11: Kashrut2

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Who Are We, You and I: Meditations on Death and Afterlife

See my talk:  Laurence H. Kant, “Who Are We, You and I: Meditations on Death and Afterlife”: Late Life Concerns: The Final Miles, Newman Center, Lexington, Kentucky, August, 2010: © 2010, Laurence H. Kant, All rights reserved:  Who Are We

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Aqedah (Genesis 22): Binding of Abraham and Isaac

See Laurence H. Kant, “Some Restorative Thoughts on an Agonizing Text:  Abraham’s Binding of Isaac and the Horror on  Mt. Moriah  (Gen. 22)”:  “Part 1,”Lexington Theological Quarterly 38 (2003) 77-109; “Part 2, Lexington Theological Quarterly 38 (2003) 161- 94: AqedahPart1a andAqedahPart2a

See also Laurence H. Kant, “Arguing with God and Tiqqun Olam:  A Response to Andre LaCocque on the Aqedah,” Lexington Theological Quarterly 40 (2005) 203-19 (this was a response to an article by André Lacocque, “About the ‘Akedah’ in Genesis 22:  A Response to Laurence H. Kant,”Lexington Theological Quarterly 40 (2005) 191-201): AqedahResponseToLacocque

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Antisemitism on Rise in West

See Laurence H. Kant, “Anti-Semitism on Rise in West,” op-ed, Lexington Herald Leader, January 8, 2007:  Antisemitism1

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Jewish Inscriptions in Greek and Latin

See Laurence H. Kant, “Jewish Inscription in Greek and Latin,” in Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt, 2.20.2:671-713.  Berlin:  Walter de Gruyter, 1987 at the following two links:  JewishInscriptions1JewishInscriptions2

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Ancient Synagogues in Jewish Inscriptions

See my talk:  Laurence H. Kant, “Early Jewish Synagogues in Epigraphic Evidence,” Archaeology of the New Testament World Group, American Academy of Religion/Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting, San Francisco, November, 1992: © 1992, Laurence H. Kant, All rights reserved:  SynagogueTalk1

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The Mistakes the Spies Made in Numbers 13:30-33

What was the mistake the spies made when they scouted the land of milk and honey?  They allowed fear to overcome trust.

What was another mistake the scouts made?  They focused on what others thought rather than on what there were to do.

What was another mistake?  They assumed that size was more important than wits.

What was another mistake? They acted like slaves rather than free persons.

What was another mistake? They were there to figure out how, not whether.

What was another mistake?  They exaggerated rather than coolly assessing.

What was another mistake?  They could not leave the past and move forward.

What was another mistake? They could not envision an alternative to their current situation.  They preferred the familiar and the customary to change.

What was another mistake?  They quit.  They just gave up.

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Translating “God” and “Lord”

Because of the anthropomorphic connotations of the English words, “God” and “Lord,” because of the human tendency to use “God” as a thing or object (thereby objectifying “God”), and because of their inherently gendered meanings (”Lord” as opposed to “Lady” and “God” as opposed to “Goddess”), these words have too much baggage to use in current translations of the Hebrew Bible. Therefore, I often replace “God” with “THE ALL” and “LORD GOD” with “ALL THAT IS.” For “LORD,” I simply use “SOURCE.” This will no doubt prove strange for many readers, but de-familiarization is part of the process of reacquainting oneself with the deeper meanings of the biblical text.      These translations also have the advantage of preserving the actual significance of the Hebrew words which have become ossified in English (and other modern languages) translations and consequently lost their original meanings.

YHWH comes from the Hebrew word, “to be” (hayah), and is explicitly associated with being, becoming, existence, etc. By using a verb to describe the Divine, early Jewish writers imply that the Divine is fundamentally not an object or a thing, but rather that it is relational in nature. One might describe it as “energy,” because it is a force, not an object. The English word, “Lord,” reflects the Hebrew vowel pointing of YHWH as adonai (a – o – ai), used by Jews from antiquity to the present day to avoid saying the Divine name. There are other circumlocutions used by Jews to avoid saying the Divine name:   e.g. “the name” ( hashem) and “the place” (hamaqom). By using “SOURCE” or “ALL THAT IS,” I maintain the original meaning of the word without using the Divine name.

Elohim  is the word that normally translates “God” (from El, the chief deity of the Ugaritic pantheon), but it is a plural form that naturally implies a multiplicity of deities. In the Hebrew Bible, it normally indicates the deity of the Jewish people: the One God, the Eternal. Occasionally it directly indicates more than one god (such as in Genesis 1:26 and 3:22), but even there the notion of oneness persists. As a plural form, Elohim suggests that one cannot limit the Divine to a single thing (which a singular form would connote) and actually implies that the Divine is so all-encompassing that no thing falls outside of its compass. Elohim means unity. From a metaphorical perspective, one might see the Divine as a choir rather than a soloist; here the many become one. This is why the term, “monotheism” (which implies singularity rather than oneness or unity) is inadequate for describing the Jewish and Christian concepts of Divinity. “THE ALL” preserves the all-encompassing character, relationality, unity, and oneness of the Divine.

See how I do this in “translations of Genesis by larry” in “about mystic scholar”: http://mysticscholar.org/about-mystic-scholar/translations-of-genesis-by-larry/

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“Some Restorative Thoughts on an Agonizing Text: Abraham’s Binding of Isaac and the Horror on Mt. Moriah (Gen. 22)”

By Laurence H. Kant

1) “Some Restorative Thoughts on an Agonizing Text:  Abraham’s Binding of Isaac and the Horror on  Mt. Moriah  (Gen. 22)”: “Part 1,” Lexington Theological Quarterly 38 (2003) 77-109; “Part 2”  Lexington Theological Quarterly 38 (2003) 161-94

2) “Arguing with God and Tiqqun Olam:  A Response to Andre LaCocque on the Aqedah,” Lexington Theological Quarterly 40 (2005) 203-19 (this was a response to an article by André Lacocque, “About the ‘Akedah’ in Genesis 22:  A Response to Laurence H. Kant,” Lexington Theological Quarterly 40 (2005) 191-201)

AqedahArticlePart1a; AqedahArticlePart2a; and AqedLacocqueResp1

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Mystic Scholar study in spirituality

I am reflecting on the fundamental shift away from institutional religion. It affects every religion and every religious community globally: churches, mosques, synagogues, temples, etc. It cuts across the ideological and political spectra. As educational attainment increases, so does disaffection with traditional religious modalities. Yet the vast majority of people still seek to explore the fundamental questions of existence, matters of ultimate concern (as Tillich says), interconnectedness, community, ethics, and love and relationships. Why are so many religious institutions unable or unwilling to address the hunger for meaning and purpose that so many yearn for?

Looking forward to commenting in the future on these topics.

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Women and Temple Priesthood

In fact, there’s some evidence from antiquity that suggests that there were Jewish women who may have served as priests in the Graeco-Roman period (for example diaspora Jewish inscriptions). Obviously this goes against the heavy weight of rabbinic tradition, but I bet that there is evidence in rabbinic texts to suggest something similar (probably when a rabbi criticizes some other practice)–I need to look into this some time. Is it possible also that some of the women (Sarah) in Genesis functioned as priests, but then that tradition was reinterpreted by the biblical writers? Controversial, but I would not rule it out.

In any case, whatever the technical sense of priesthood in modern contexts, Jews reformulated priestly and Temple practices into home and synagogue life after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. So a woman who lights the Shabbat candles functionally takes the place of a priest.

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A Personal View of Kashrut

A PERSONAL VIEW OF KASHRUT

Laurence H. Kant
Kosher observance entails many things. Each Jew who considers himself or herself to be “observant” calibrates the areas and degrees of that observance.

There are many theories about kashrut’s origins—anthropological, sociological, moral, health-related. Torah doesn’t offer any explicit reason other than God’s command.  Presumably, there are many factors. I’m more interested, however, in the outcomes of the practice than its origins.

“Keeping kosher” is commonly associated with not eating pork and shellfish, but it was my evangelical Christian naturopath who convinced me to avoid both pigs and shellfish because they have inefficient digestive systems and retain toxins and allergens. I realized that kosher observance may have given Jews an adaptive advantage in terms of well-being and longevity, since our circulatory, neural, lymphatic, and digestive systems are healthier than those of others who eat toxin-filled foods.
There may be health reasons for separating meat and dairy, too. Vegans don’t consume dairy products (along with meat), and there are naturopathic reasons for avoiding dairy, particularly homogenized/pasteurized milk products.  Many naturopaths believe that the process of producing dairy products damages the food, making people less able to absorb nutrients. There’s also a view that eating meat and dairy together makes our bodies less able to break down foods in our digestion than if we ate them separately, clogging our systems and raising cholesterol levels.
Beyond health, there are other reasons for maintaining kosher awareness. For one thing, it makes consumers and eaters more conscious of what they ingest. (My wife has long quipped that “organic” is the New Age “kosher.”)

Keeping kosher is what Jews have always done and are commanded to do. While that’s not enough for me, I originally stopped eating pork in order to maintain my connection to my ancestors and my tradition. I think there’s value in doing so.

There’s another reason that’s difficult for non-Jews to understand. Kosher and Sabbath observance have always distinguished Jews from others. Being different is part of what it means to be Jewish. Jews are, frankly, notoriously contrarian (even enjoying breaking their own rules) and don’t follow the crowd.  The Jewish path is a less traveled one.

This “otherness” gives us a different perspective and allows us to see connections others don’t. It’s what has allowed Jews to help make the world a better place. Look at the Jewish Nobel prizewinners, artists, and humanitarians—well beyond the miniscule percentage of Jews in the population. Sadly, this very habit of life and mind that has advanced the world is what offends non-Jews and makes non-Jews suspicious of us. Despite this, Jews (religious and secular) continue to live distinctively, often without realizing they’re doing so.

I don’t view Judaism as solely a religion, but rather as a way and philosophy of life that has made one people take an “alternate route” for three millennia.  For me, what distinguishes Jews isn’t the obvious, but an array of things that most don’t notice. These include non-religious elements, such as pursuit of learning, challenging authority, taking pleasure in debate, love of good food, and humor. Jews have, and will, adopt the cultural influences around us. One of the distinctive characteristics of Jews has been our capacity to adapt what it means to be Jewish and still remain Jews. We’re protean, able to take on different roles and appearances, but still keep a Jewish perspective and way of life, wherever we go. That’s what continues to make me Jewish—not dietary law, per se.

I value thinking about food and believe that kashrut encourages this. My personal understanding of kashrut isn’t very traditional.  For me, kosher dietary practice means being conscious of food, how it’s grown, raised, and prepared, and where it comes from.  It also includes the humane treatment of animals. Organic practices are a form of kashrut for me, and I consider free-range/non-hormonal chickens more truly kosher than chickens prepared according to rabbinical standards. If I could easily obtain and afford kosher/free range/non-hormonal chickens, I would prefer them.

That’s my highly idiosyncratic understanding of kashrut: it preserves ancient traditions that possess great wisdom, and, together with modern organic foods, it makes sense to me.

Published in Shalom,  September,  2010,  p. 11

© Laurence H. Kant 2010

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Origins of Gnosticism

A friend of mine asked me about the origins of Gnosticism. Not everyone agrees on the origins of Gnosticism. The term itself is disputed, because many do not even believe that there is a coherent phenomenon called “Gnosticism.” Of those who do accept the idea of “Gnosticism,” there are some who see it as a second century C.E. Christian movement, but there are others who see it as first a Jewish movement (this is my view). And there are others who see Gnosticism as a kind of “pagan” (whatever that means) philosophical spirituality. Take your pick. It all depends on how one defines “Gnosticism,” I guess. My favorite sourcebook for Gnosticism is, Bentley Layton, Gnostic Scriptures (Anchor Bible Library).

For a comprehensive view of Gnosticism as a Christian movement, see Simone Petrement, A Separate God. For the Jewish origin view, see Guy Stroumsa, Another Seed; also Carl Smith, No Longer Jews. From my point of view, if you look at a text like the Apocryphon of John, for example, this essentially reads as a Jewish text. For Jews living in the Hasmonean and Roman periods, there was constant apocalyptic ferment and messianic crisis–even more so after the destruction of the Temple in 70. The Gnostic view makes sense in such a context. Elisha ben Abuya was not the only Jew to have speculated about a “second God” (hence his nickname, “Aher,” “other”); that kind of speculation can be found in one form or another in Jewish mystical texts in antiquity right through the Kabbalah and Lurianic mysticism. The Christian theory really only works if you define “Gnosticism” in certain terms, thereby making it Christian. I can define pretty much anything into existence by using that kind of logic. It’s like putting on blinders, and then saying that anything you could see without the blinders are really figments.

My own view is that Jews had more widespread influence on non-Jews during the Graeco-Roman period than is generally understood. “Pagans” may have picked up some of the ideas from Jews (as magical papyri seem to indicate). and that could have been one of the avenues that Jewish gnostic ideas traveled to Christianity. Also, as Jews,some early Christians would have received these ideas directly from Jewish tradition.

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Israeli Internal Religious Conflict

If ever the Palestinians and Israelis get it together, this will become the big issue in Israel:  progressive and secular Jews vs. the Ultra-Orthodox. Israel is only 20% Orthodox, and many of them are not Ultra-Orthodox.  E.g. Shimon Peres is Orthodox, and he’s no fan of the ultra-religious and their parties.  About 15 years ago, everyone predicted that the Ultra-Orthodx would grow substantially in numbers, but that has not happened, as many children of Ultra-Orthodox families are influenced by the broader global culture (as many of the youth are in Iran) and do not stay within the fold.  The Palestinian conflict helps the Ultra-Orthodox, since it divides everybody else.  In the long run, I don’t think that the Ultra-Orthodox can win, because the numbers are not on their side and because this is not the direction of human culture.  Time is on our side.

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Be Present

Wherever you go, be there (Ex. 24.12).

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Judaism and Social Action IV

One further positive on government:  the environment.  If we didn’t have federal mandates, Lake Erie would still be burning, chemical and other toxic waste producing companies would be doing more damage to our soil and water, I and lots of others would be suffering from more severe asthma-induced air pollution (I’m personally still waiting for more restrictions on air particulates–it would help me to breathe), we’d continue to enjoy the benefits of DDT in our food, etc.  Sometimes the mandates are too strict (I’ve seen that with our own small family property in the Boston area), but all in all I prefer to be able to eat, drink, breathe, and live on a healthy planet.  If you want it the other way, take a look at Love Canal and other similar locations:  that’s what we have to look forward to without government “improvements.”

Again, government (WE) sometimes does the job well and sometimes badly.  That doesn’t mean we should either rely on government or remove it, but frankly we need to look to ourselves and ask ourselves what we’re doing wrong or not doing at all.  It’s up to us.  Government ineffectivenss, impersonalness, and bloat are just smptoms of our own attitudes and behaviors.

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Judaism and Social Action III

An email response to a friend of mine:

————————————————-

A couple of points.  You’re right.  There is a distinction between government-sponsored social action and social action in a Jewish context.  But the distinction is NOT between “government” and the “individual.”

For one thing, “government” is composed of individuals–just like you and I, they’re members of our communities.  There is no “us” and “them” (i.e. goverment and people).  That’s an illusion.  The government is “us”; if we don’t like it, that’s our problem, and we should elect new reps who will change it (obviously campaign finance reform may be necessary, but that’s ultimately in our hands too).  Posing government as some kind of demonic bogeyman is just another form of scapegoating.  It tries to fob off our problems on some other entity or group of individuals.  It’s another component of the victim mentality prevalent in Western culture.  Usually we think of ethnic groups as engaging in the discourse of victimiziation, but those who blame the government for all of our ills do exactly the same thing.

Government does good things, and government does bad things.  It built our highway system.  The Voting Rights Act allowed African-Americans to vote in the South.  It gave us the GI Bill of WWII, which allowed a whole generation of GI’s to attend college and buy homes and helped to produce the modern American economy from which we still benefit.  For all its faults, affirmative action and diversity have produced work forces that include women and minorities–I think of universities where I have worked, and I know that they would look very different without the pressure of government (probably hardly any women or minorities).  Of course, government does bad things as well.  Look at our tax code.  Look at the huge bureacracies.  Look at the welfare system.  Look at the Post Office.  Look at the mess we have for an educational system.  In the end, what government does well and what government does badly simply reflects on US.  Good or bad, in the end we are responsible.  Instead of blaming government or the “system,” we need to take a good, hard look at ourselves.

As to Judaism on social action.  Judaism does not view individuals as completely separate from their communities.  That’s why at Yom Kippur we atone for sins that we ourselves as individuals may not have committed.  And Judaism always views indidiuals as part of a larger Jewish community.  And the rabbis wrote the Mishnah, Talmud, and Responsa for the express purpose of governance.  They always envisioned a Jewish society in which these laws (civil, criminal, and religious) would run a nation.  That’s because Judaism isn’t solely a religion, but also a culture, a people, and a nation.  It’s both indidivual and group.  The two go together.  Tzedakah, etc., are OBLIGATIONS that Jews have both as indviduals and as a community.  The rabbis viewed those who did not do their share not only as making an individual error, but as disturbing the harmony and well-being of the larger group and even the cosmos.  And there were penalties when such behavior got out of hand.  I’m not personally a big fan of a rabbinic government, but, when we refer to the rabbis, we should be clear:  THAT’S WHAT THEY THOUGHT.  It’s fine to emphasize the individual over the group (though I myself prefer a more balanced and integrated approach), but in any case that’s not how the rabbis thought or think even now in Israel.

The individualism that some in our country emphasize reflects a very different tradition from the rabbinic one.  It’s a wonderful tradition that has helped to make our nation what it is today, but (in my opinion) it owes more to the Enlightenment than to any earlier religious traditions.  As for myself, I believe that we can exist both as individuals with our own personal goals and needs and as members of larger communities with whom we share group commitments and oblgations.  It’s always a balance, but that’s the challenge we have to acknowledge and face.

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War and Peace in Middle East

I wrote this this to a friend who was very upset with Avigdor Lieberman’s statement, “those who want peace should prepare for war.”

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I know that this sounds awful and that Lieberman has used racist language toward Arabs.  This is certainly true, and that part is wrong.

At the same time, I agree with his statement that there is no peace without preparing for war.  That is a part of Jewish thought for millennia and is encompassed in the Jewish notion of “shalom.”  Shalom means “wholeness,” not peace.  In this case, “wholeness” includes both the retreating and assertive sides of human nature and of nature itself.  I did not like Ronald Reagan’s domestic policies, but he was right in the way that he dealt with the Soviet Union.  And, in the Middle East, that is even more true.  You have to be tough, and you have to take into account that those who hate you will use various means at their disposal to annihilate you.  That’s the way it is, and anyone who wants peace also has to understand this fact.  Otherwise, you invite aggression and violence.

If I were in Lieberman’s position, I would not say what he said publicly about preparing for war, but preparing for the possibility of war is what I would do.

I am attaching an article by Yossi Klein Halevi who understands the Middle East as well as anyone that I know.  He wrote a wonderful book called “At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden:  A Jew’s Search for God with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land.”  He is a political centrist, very realistic, but very much wanting peace.  This article expresses much that is in my view true:
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123846458281572307.html.  The idea right now of negotiations toward a two-state solution is naive and foolish.  I believe in a two-state solution, but the Palestinians are at this time nowhere near in a position to have a functional, democratic state.  The best that we can hope for is movement in the Palestinian and Arab world toward a civil, democratic, tolerant society.  That is a precondition and prerequisite for a meaningful peace settlement.  Olmert and Livni (and Barak in the past) did everything they could to engage in dialogue with the Palestinian leadership about an agreement.  They failed primarily because the time was not yet ready for them to succeed.  Palestinian society needs to change in order for peace to even have a chance.

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Jewish Contract with God

From an e-mail I received

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To: The Lord G-d Almighty a.k.a. Ha’shem, Shadai, Elohim, etc.

From: The Jews: a.k.a. The Chosen People

Subject: Termination of Contract/Special Status (Chosen People)

As you are aware, the contract made between You and Abraham is up for
renewal, and this memorandum is to advise You that after, yea, those many
millennia of consideration, we, the Jews (The Chosen People) have decided
that we really do not wish to renew.

We should point out immediately that there is nothing in writing, and, contrary to popular beliefs, we (The Jews) have not really benefited too much from this arrangement. If You go back to the early years of our  arrangement, it definitely started off on the wrong footing. Not only was  Israel and Judea invaded almost every year, but we also went to enormous expense to erect not one but two Temples, and they
were both destroyed. All we have left is a pile of old stones called the Western Wall (of course You know all this, but we feel it’s a good thing to account for all the reasons we wish to terminate the contract).

After the Hittites, Assyrians, Goliaths, etc, not only were we beaten up almost daily, but then we were sold off as slaves to Egypt, of all countries, and really lost a few hundred years of development. Now, we realize that You went to a great deal of trouble to send Moses to lead us out of Egypt, and those poor Egyptian buggers were smitten (smote?)with all those plagues. But, reflecting on those years, we are  at a loss to understand why it took almost forty years to make a trip that El Al now does in 75 minutes.

Also, while not appearing to be  ungrateful, for years a lot of people have asked why Moses led us left  instead of right at Sinai? If we had gone right, we would have had the oil!

OK, so the oil was not part of the deal, but then the Romans came and we really were up to our necks in dreck. While it’s true that the Romans did give us water fit to drink, aqueducts, and baths, it was very disconcerting to walk down one of the vias, look up, and see oneof your friends or family nailed to a three-by-four looking for all the world like a sign post. Even one of our princes, Judah Ben Hur got caught up with Roman stuff and drove like a crazy man around the Coliseum. It’s a funny thing but many people swore that Ben Hur had an uncanny resemblance to Moses…go figure.

Then, of all things, one of our rabbis (teachers) declared himself “Son of You” (there was nothing said about this with Abe) and before we knew what was what, a whole new religion sprang up. To add insult to injury,
we were dispersed all over the world two or three times while this new religion really caught on! We were truly sorry to hear that the Romans executed him like so many others, but, …alas, (and this will make you
laugh,) once again WE were blamed.

Now here’s something we really don’t understand. That our rabbi really came into his own. Millions of people revered and worshipped his name and scriptures. ….. and still killed us by the millions. They claimed we drank the blood of new born infants, and controlled the world banks (Oy! if only that were so.) We could have bought them all off, and operated the world’s media and so on and so on. Are we beginning to make our point here?

OK so let’s fast-forward a few hundred years to the Crusades. Hoo boy! Again we were caught in the middle! They, the lords and knights, came from all over Europe to smack the Arabs and open up the holy places, but before we knew what hit us, they were killing us right, left, and center along with everyone else. Every time a king or a pope was down in the opinion polls, they called a crusade or holy war, and went on a killing rampage in our land.

Today it’s called Jihad. OK, so You tested us a little there, but then some bright cleric in Spain came up with the Inquisition. We all thought it was a new game show, but once again we and, we must admit, quite a few others were used as firewood for a whole new street lighting arrangement in major Spanish cities.

All right, so that ended after about a hundred years or so… in the scheme of things not a long time. But every time we settled down in one country or another, they kicked us out! So we wandered around a few hundred years or so, but it never changed. Finally we settled in a few countries but they insisted we all live in ghettoes…no Westchesters or Moscow for us. There we are in the ghettoes, when what do you know? The Russians come up with the Pogroms. We all thought they made a spelling mistake and misspelled programs, but we were dead wrong (no pun intended). Apparently, when there was nothing else for them to do, killing
the Jews (a.k.a. The Chosen People, are You getting our drift?) was the in thing.

Now comes some really tough noogies. We were doing quite well, thank You, in a small European country called Germany, when some house painter wrote a book, said a few things that caught on and became
their leader….whoo boy what a bad day that was for us…You know…Your Chosen People. We don’t really know where You were in the earth years 1940 to 1945. We know everyone needs a break now and then…..even Lord G-d Almighty needs some time off. But really…when we needed You most, You were never around. You are probably aware of this, but if You have forgotten, over six million of Your Chosen People, along with quite a few unchosen others, were murdered. They even made lampshades out of our skins. Look, we don’t want to dwell on the past, but it gets worse!

Here we are, it’s 1948, and millions of us are displaced yet again, when You really pull a fast one. We finally get our own land back! Yes!!! After all these years, You arrange for us to go back… then all the
Arab countries immediately declare war on us. We have to tell You that sometimes Your sense of humor really eludes us. Ok, so we win all the wars, but it’s now 2006 and nothing’s changed. We keep getting blown up, hijacked, and kidnapped. We have no peace whatsoever.

Enough is enough. So, we hope that You understand that nothing’s forever (except You of course) and we respectfully would like to pull out of our verbal agreement vis-a -vis being Your chosen people. Look, sometimes things work out, sometimes they don’t.  Let’s be friends over the next few eons and see what happens. How about this? We’re sure You recall that Abraham had a whole other family from Ishmael (the ones who got the oil). How about making them Your chosen people for a few thousand years?

Respectfully,

The Commitee To Be UN-Chosen

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The Text of the Hebrew Bible Was Not Permanently Fixed

Recently Oxford University Press published a book, which looks of great interest.  Though I have not yet read it and cannot vouch for it, the author presents a thesis that alerts us all (scholars and lay both) to the proverbial elephant in the room:  B. Barry Levy, Fixing God’s Torah:  The Accuracy of the Hebrew Bible Text in Jewish Law (New York, Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2001).  For text critics (those who work with the original manuscripts) and those who read them, knowledge of the biblical text’s fluidity comes as no surprise.  From biblical versions found at Qumran (the Dead Sea Scrolls) and from the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible), from the second century BCE to the first century CE, we know that the biblical text varied from source to source.  Yet, most of us still work and study  “as if” the Masoretes got it absolutely right in the Middle Ages:  we have the correct text.  Now Barry Levy apparently shows that the rabbis of antiquity did not even agree on the notion of an immutable text and recognized the need to “correct” the text.  He provides a plethora of evidence.  Wow.  That’s kind of an earthquake.  Even the very traditional rabbinic tradition seemingly acknowledged that the text of the Torah was not permanently fixed.  Should provide for lots of lively discussion.

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